Studies in John (Lesson 5: The Nobleman's Son; The Pool of Bethesda)
I. The Nobleman's Son (John 4:43-54)
After Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, he returned to Galilee, where he had performed his first recorded miracle. In this account, it seems as if John is bringing a unified and tightly inter-woven section to a close; the direct allusion to Cana and the turning of water to wine, in verse forty-six, suggests that the first miracle in Cana, together with this second one, were meant to stand as bookends to a literary unit with a common theme. And, just as John brought out the insufficiency of a faith which looks just to the sign-miracles themselves, without embracing the person of Christ, at the end of the wedding account (John 2:23-25); so here, he is going to make the same point, but even more forcibly. Of course, this is in accordance with John's purpose â€“â€“ to establish the truth about the person of Jesus, through the miracles that he did, so that people might have faith in him, and so pass into eternal life (John 20:31). But it is vital to note (as John will insist upon over and over again in his gospel) that for one to have eternal life, he must believe, not in the miracles themselves; but because of the miracles, come to believe in Christ, as the Messiah and the true Son of God. But the sad truth is, for the Jewish people at large, faith in signs did not progress to a living faith in the Son of God.
Of course, that is not strictly true of every Jew â€“â€“ as John tells us in chapter two, his true disciples saw his glory, and believed in him (John 2:11); nevertheless, as a general tendency, the Jewish nation as a whole was already in the midst of a conflict with Jesus that would escalate into an overwhelming and final rejection of him, ultimately ending with his crucifixion. But even this shameful reality would bear good fruit, with the Gentiles coming to Christ instead of the Jews, as we saw an example of last week, in the Samaritan village of Sycar. The contrast between that event and this is quite poignant: â€œmany of the Samaritans believed in himâ€ (John 4:39); but â€œin his fatherlandâ€ he had no such honor (John 4:44).
Verse forty-five poses an interesting question: why, when John had just said that a prophet has no honor in his own fatherland, would he then say that in Galilee, where he grew up (that is, his â€œfatherlandâ€), the Jews therefore â€œreceived himâ€? Shouldn't he say that, because a prophet is not honored in his fatherland, the Jews therefore rejected him? Although this may not seem to fit at first, when the next phrase is read, it begins to make sense â€“â€“ the Jews received him in a superficial sense, because they enjoyed all the signs that they had seen in Jerusalem, but they did not honor him as the true Son of God. Theirs was not the sort of faith that laid hold of eternal life; and to illustrate this basic point, John is about to relate a very telling account of Christ's second miracle in Cana.
Although this account has some similarities with the account of Christ's healing a centurion's servant in the synoptics, the two are actually quite different miracles. For one thing, the centurion was a Gentile (Matthew 8:10-11), but this nobleman, being an unspecified resident of Galilee, must be assumed to be Jewish. Second, the centurion had a sick servant, whom Jesus healed (Luke 7:2); but this nobleman had a sick son (John 4:46). And finally, Jesus emphatically praised the faith of the centurion (Luke 7:9), but he used the request of this nobleman to rebuke the Jews' shallow faith (John 4:48).
Although in outward circumstances, the two miracles are very similar, yet in the matter of true, life-apprehending faith, they are worlds apart. This nobleman asked Jesus to come into his house and heal his son, because he knew of him as a miracle-worker; but how different is the attitude of the Gentile centurion who counted himself unworthy for Jesus to come under his roof, and knew he had all the divine power of God in his very word? The centurion worshiped Christ as Lord and God; but the nobleman just wanted to get physical benefits out of him. And so, although Christ praised the faith of this Gentile, confessing that he had not found its like in all of Israel, he condemned the sort of faith that the nobleman had.
And not only did he condemn the nobleman's faith â€“â€“ he used the occasion to condemn the faith of all Israel. In verse forty-eight, he expands to plural pronoun reference: unless all of you see signs and wonders, all of you will not believe. The verdict that he has passed upon the nobleman, he is passing upon the whole Jewish nation.
But the story does not end there: for Christ, exercising the same authority to heal by the word of his mouth, long intervening distances notwithstanding, that he had employed with the Gentile centurion; so demonstrates the true nature of his person, that this nobleman and all his house came to have true faith in Jesus (John 4:53). This is the sort of faith that the signs of Jesus were intended to produce â€“â€“ a faith that looked beyond the mere physical benefits of a beneficent wonder-worker, and came to worship and delight in the person of Christ. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Jews stopped with that sort of materialistic faith that the nobleman had at the beginning of the story, and did not progress, as did he, to true faith in the person of Christ.
II. The Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18)
The next miracle of Christ, in chapter five, is going to emphasize the same basic truth (the need for a genuine faith in the person of Christ, and not just his works) â€“â€“ but in addition, John includes the first of several lengthy monologues, in which Christ takes the opportunity, after having performed a miracle, to teach about his own nature. In addition, this miracle serves to further the antagonism between Jesus and the religious leadership of the Jews, and so continues to set the stage for the final persecution, ending in Jesus' own execution.
Whereas the former man was seeking Jesus' miracles for mere physical benefits, with no thirst for spiritual life; this crippled man at the pool was even worse off: for not only was he seeking mere physical improvement, but he was also seeking it at a most uncertain and unprofitable place. Apparently, there was a superstition current among the people of Jerusalem, that whenever the waters of a certain pool were troubled, the first person to bathe in them would be miraculously healed. This man had waited for thirty-eight years, and had not been successful in his attempts to be healed through these means. When Jesus approached him, however, he healed him immediately and effortlessly, and sent him on his way home.
However, this man, as the nobleman before him, lacked true faith in the person of Jesus; which fact may be seen by his attempt to â€œget out of troubleâ€ by finding fault with him before the accusing Pharisees (John 5:11); and also, by the fact that Jesus later encountered him with a stern warning to repent before something worse befell him (John 5:14). Although he had been delivered from a physical sickness, he was still under the weight of a far greater calamity â€“â€“ eternal judgment. Faith in Jesus as a mere provider of physical benefits, without the spiritual knowledge of him as God and Messiah, was a shallow and imperfect faith, that would not issue in eternal life.
But more important, in this story, is the manner in which the conflict unfolds between Jesus and the Pharisees, over the nature of the Sabbath. The Pharisees, by condemning acts of mercy, even the overturning of sickness (which was a result of sin and the curse), on the Sabbath, demonstrate an utter misunderstanding of the true nature of the Sabbath principle. The true Sabbath would take place when, after the labor which characterizes this cursed world, God brings his children into a perfect rest in his presence, away from every sickness and disease. Jesus, of course, by healing this miserable man, was fulfilling the very heart of the Sabbath command, and giving a foretaste of the day when he would fulfill it perfectly, in the eternal kingdom.
This disagreement came into even sharper focus over Jesus' explanation of why it was so fitting that he, in particular, should be healing on the Sabbath. It was because God the Father was constantly at work to accomplish the plan of redemption and usher in the final Sabbath; and so Jesus, as the true Son of the Father, was also constantly at work for the same purpose. By asserting this much, Jesus is basically claiming that he and God the Father are equally involved in the constant government of the world, and the unfolding of redemptive history â€“â€“ which is, as the Pharisees quickly recognized, a claim to equality with God (John 5:18). And so, because Jesus had â€œbroken the Sabbathâ€ (although he had actually fulfilled its essential principle), and had made a blasphemous claim to equality with God (according to the Pharisees's perception that he was a mere man) â€“â€“ he therefore deserved to be condemned. The Pharisees saw his miracles, but they did not therefore believe in the person of Jesus; and so the conflict continued to grow.
III. Jesus' Testimony of Himself (John 5:19-30)
After this healing had sparked a controversy with the Jewish leaders, Jesus takes the first of several occasional opportunities to teach necessary truths about himself. Here, as he had offended them by claiming to work as God works, he takes the opportunity to describe just how he relates to the Father. They are so essentially united, that Jesus (the Son) is unable to do anything but what the Father wills and does. No one has seen and known God perfectly, except the Son of God â€“â€“ and so the Son flawlessly knows the will of the Father, and does precisely the same things that the Father does. The Father, on the other hand, loves the Son, and plans out all the matters of redemption, for the Son to do. In this work, the Son is both doing the same things the Father does, as, for instance, raising the dead and giving life to whomever he will; and also, he is perfectly accomplishing the redemptive will of the Father, who has shown all things to him (vs. 20).
In addition to this perfect unity, in which the Father and the Son are mutually involved in the same actions and purposes, there is also a diversity of offices; and hence, the Father makes known his will to the Son, and gives the Son the authority to carry out that will in all things, including such matters as the final judgment of mankind (vs. 22); and the giving of eternal life, which comes from his own person (vs. 26). In these two realms alone, it becomes clear that the Father has given the Son absolute authority over all mankind, to condemn those who do not believe in him, and to give life to those who do. And ultimately, this authority will issue in the glorification of the Son, as all men honor him (vs. 23). Indeed, the honor of the Son and the Father are so bound up together that, if one honors the Son, he honors the Father also; but if he does not honor the Son, neither does he honor the Father (cf. I John 2:22-23). Finally, Jesus reaffirms his initial statement, that he is not able to do anything alone, and qualifies it with this extended observation: he is so united with the Father that it is not possible for the Father to will one thing and the Son to do something else. They are perfectly one, and cannot be at odds with each other anymore than God can deny himself (cf. II Timothy 2:13).
IV. Other Witnesses to Jesus (John 5:31-47)
Just as we have noticed before, John gives great weight to the importance of reliable testimony to the person and works of Jesus. Here, Jesus recognizes that, if he is alone in testifying to these truths about himself, then there is no compelling reason to believe his own testimony â€“â€“ after all, even the Law demanded the witness of at least two persons (cf. John 8:16-18). But in fact, he has many reliable witnesses that corroborate his claims about himself. The first of these, John the Baptist, has already served a key role in John's gospel. Although Jesus makes clear that he does not need to receive John the Baptist's testimony (since he already knows the Father perfectly), yet John was sent as a reliable witness, not for Jesus' sake, but for the salvation of those around (vs. 34). Eternal life is only to be had in Christ, and God was very gracious in sending many reliable witnesses of Christ, so that people might have reason to believe, and so be saved. Although John the apostle previously made clear that John the Baptist was not â€œthe true Lightâ€ (John 1:6-9), yet he was a lesser light, in that he pointed people to him who was indeed the true Light. The tragic irony is that, although the Jews were content to rejoice in the lesser light of John the Baptist, they rejected the Light to which he bore witness (vs. 35).
But even as firm a witness as John was, Jesus was very clear that he had greater testimony than John's: The very works that Jesus did bore witness to who he is. Christ does not just do extraordinary things â€“â€“ he works the miracles of God (vs. 36). As Christ would elsewhere reason, if he is doing his miracles by Satan's power, then Satan's kingdom is divided against itself and must fall â€“â€“ for Christ's works were always in fulfillment of the Father's will, and in opposition to Satan. But if he has authority to do miracles, and if his authority is always exercised in the accomplishment of the Father's will, then Jesus must be One with the Father, and the heavenly Kingdom of the Father must be present in the ministry of Jesus (cf. Matthew 12:24-28).
But even more convincing than the witness of Jesus' works is that Jesus' claims are vindicated by the very witness of God himself. In a way, all of the lesser testimonies to Jesus are God's testimony; John the Baptist was a prophet speaking God's word to the people, and the scriptures that testify to Jesus are likewise the Word of God. But in an even more direct and extraordinary way, God himself bore witness to Jesus, when the God whom no one except the Son has truly seen or heard spoke audibly to the people, on several occasions. Already, at his Baptism, God had proclaimed, â€œThis is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased" (Matthew 3:17); and later he would speak audibly again in testimony to the Son, first at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), and then again after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:28-30).
And even beyond this incontrovertible testimony, there is another testimony which would rise up to condemn the Pharisees â€“â€“ for they had it among them, and yet could not see it. This is the testimony of the holy Scriptures. Although all the Old Testament scriptures bear witness to Christ, in whom is eternal life, the Pharisees, who prided themselves on searching the scriptures, rejected the One to whom those scriptures pointed, and refused to come to him. The ultimate reason for this is that they are blinded by their own pride and hardness of heart, and so they cannot believe. They delight in receiving glory from men, who admire their sharp precision in understanding all the ins and outs of the law. They are not even averse to giving glory to other men who are equally discerning. But they refuse to accept God's own testimony about Christ, and hence will not believe in him. We would do well to learn from this example: if even the Pharisees, who devoted their lives to studying the scriptures, were condemned for their blindness in failing to see Jesus at the center of those scriptures; then how much greater will our condemnation be, when we have the whole New Testament in which the disciples preached Christ from the Old Testament, having been taught by Christ himself (Luke 24:44-48), and inspired by the Holy Spirit (II Timothy 3:16)â€“â€“ if we are in so may ways better off than they, how much more indicting will Christ's accusation be against us, if we fail to see Christ at the center of all the Old Testament scriptures?
Finally, Jesus wraps up his discourse by returning the blame for this condemnation directly upon the Pharisees. Jesus does not have to condemn them â€“â€“ Moses has already condemned them, for they had read what Moses wrote of Christ, and still did not believe. And it is quite natural that, if they did not listen to Moses, who wrote of Christ, then neither would they listen to Christ himself, who spoke the same things as Moses, only more clearly and authoritatively. Christ did not have to condemn the Jews. He just exposed their true, evil natures, and showed that they were condemned already.
In this lesson, we have seen John develop in much greater detail his connected themes of the testimony about Jesus, and the kind of faith which apprehends eternal life. This testimony is diverse and irrefutable â€“â€“ and yet, because men are evil and stubborn, they will not â€“â€“ in fact they cannot â€“â€“ believe in him. They may believe in the signs themselves, and be drawn to Christ as a distributor of material goods. But the kind of Christ that Jesus claimed to be, who alone had the authority to judge all men, who alone knew all the will of God, because he is God himself â€“â€“ that Christ is too injurious to human pride to be embraced. And so, even those scholars who had studied the scriptures all their lives, when they were confronted with the One who fulfilled the Scriptures, did not believe, but â€œstumbled at the Stone of stumblingâ€ (Isaiah 8:14; I Peter 2:6-8). God, grant that it may not be so with us!